Killing of party official fuels sectarian, political tensions in Lebanon

By Thomson Reuters Apr 9, 2024 | 9:36 AM

By Maya Gebeily

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The killing of a local politician has deepened sectarian and political faultines in Lebanon, raising fears of armed clashes between rival factions in a country already beset by a deep economic crisis, and cross-border shelling linked to the Gaza War.

Government and religious officials have rushed to quell tensions after the killing of Pascal Sleiman prompted fears of renewed street brawls between rival parties and triggered beatings of Syrians. Sleiman headed the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces Party in a predominantly Christian coastal area.

Lebanon’s army said on Monday a group of Syrians tried to steal Sleiman’s car the previous evening but ultimately killed him and took his body to neighbouring Syria. It said security forces had arrested most of those responsible.

But in a written statement to Reuters on Tuesday, the Lebanese Forces rejected the account, saying Sleiman was attacked because of the party’s political views.

“The official narrative that this was a car-jacking remains incoherent, and we consider Pascal Suleiman’s killing to be a political assassination because of his political role. Unless proven otherwise, we tend to consider this to be a direct assault against the LF,” the party said.

The Lebanese Forces have not directly fingered their main rival – Iran-backed and heavily-armed Shi’ite group Hezbollah – but party officials pointed to a string of killings of anti-Hezbollah figures in the last two decades as similar cases.

Criticism of Hezbollah from Lebanon’s Christian community has spiked in recent weeks, particularly after fighters from the group were accused of trying to fire rockets at neighbouring Israel from a Christian village along Lebanon’s southern border.

It reflects swelling anger among Hezbollah’s critics over the group’s controversial arsenal, which outguns the army.

“In this delicate and tense political, security and social circumstance, we call for calm and restraint,” said Lebanon’s top Christian cleric, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai. He has criticised Hezbollah indirectly in the past, saying the six-month-old war with Israel had been “imposed” on Christians.


In a televised address on Monday, Hezbollah head Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Sleiman’s killing “had nothing to do with politics, and has nothing to do with Hezbollah.”

“Let us not compare the crime against Pascal Sleiman to others,” Lebanon’s interior minister Bassam Mawlawi told reporters on Tuesday. “This country cannot tolerate more problems than it is already facing nor can it tolerate discord.”

Lebanese Forces supporters shut down main roads in northern Lebanon on Monday, and school was cancelled in Beirut on Tuesday amid fears of another round of violence between the Lebanese Forces and Hezbollah. In 2021, seven Shi’ites were shot dead in an attack on a protest called by Hezbollah, which blamed supporters of the Lebanese Forces for the killings.

At the weekend Lebanon marks the anniversary of the start of its civil war on April 13, 1975, which erupted after Christian gunmen ambushed a bus carrying Palestinians in southern Beirut. The conflict ground on until 1990.

Lebanon now hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the war that erupted in their homeland in 2011. Last year, Lebanese security forces deported dozens of refugees in what rights groups called a violation of international law.

Within hours of the Lebanese army’s Monday statement accusing a group of Syrians, angry crowds gathered in northern Lebanon near Sleiman’s hometown and in Beirut.

Some men smashed cars with Syrian licence plates, raided homes where Syrians were thought to be living or beat motorcyclists thought to be Syrians, according to witnesses and footage shared on social media.

Mohamad Hasan, of the Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), a rights organisation, said the scenes were “a dangerous and unfortunate example of the principle of collective punishment”.

The Lebanese Forces told Reuters it condemned the violence against Syrians and did not want to see refugees being attacked.

“This is a diversion from the actual issue,” it said.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily and Laila Bassam, Editing by William Maclean)